Modal verbs

Modal verbs, the most prototypical of auxiliaries,54 do not signal aspect or voice, and have meanings typically of modality, whether epistemic, deontic or dynamic. Epistemic meanings concern the truth, probability, possibility, etc. of a whole proposition, deontic meanings concern permission given or obligation imposed by the speaker/writer (or in a question, the hearer/reader), while dynamic modality lacks this performative element. Examples (186) illustrate epistemic, deontic and dynamic CAN, respectively:

There have been considerable changes in usage of the modal verbs, and we must start by considering the inventory of items which qualify for the label. Core members include CAN (can, could), MAY (may, might,,WILL (will, would,, SHALL (shall, should,, MUST (must). Palmer (1988, 1990) includes OUGHT (ought,,-DAR-E (^,A«/)andNEED (need) - though naturally he neglects the archaic or dialectal form durst. If - n'tis analysed as an inflection, then most of the above forms have a negative counterpart. Other possible members of the category Modal are discussed in section 3.3.5.2 below.

3.3.5.1 Central modals

Here we discuss a number of changes in the meaning and usage of individual modals, starting with the modals of possibility and permission. The verb MAY is undergoing a particularly wide-ranging set of changes. Early in our period, might could still be used as a deontic marked for past time:

(187 = 35a) Here the poor boy was locked in by himself all day, without sight of any but the porter who brought him his bread and water - who might not speak to him [original lmphasis]

(1823 Lamb, Elia, 'Christ's Hospital' p. 37 [Visser])

The permission-in-the-past sense is virtually obsolete, though twentieth-century examples can be found (according to Palmer 1990: 104, 'only in a very formal literary style'):

(188) a. But father said they might keep the egg.

(1904Nesbit,^oe««ri. l8)

B. And they wanted to know whether there was permission for

Their crossing or what was to happen to them if they might not

Come down to the river... but they were not happy till I

Wrote them an order to say they might cross and continue on

Their way (1918 Bell, Letters 11.450 (17 Mar.))

See too the examples in Visser (1963-73: section 1662); the OED (s. v may v.1 B.4) is unhelpful here. Palmer elsewhere denies that past time can be marked at all with deontic modals in PDE, except in reported speech or in unreal or tentative contexts (1988: 100), which would apply to (188). Another unreal (though not past time) context is exemplified in (189):

(189) Now, dearest, goodbye for today. I have a million yearnings to be

With you: and failing that, I wish I might go on writing to you. But

I must not. (1891 Sidney Webb, Letters 155 1.290 (9 Sep.))

In all of these past tense functions, MAY has been largely replaced by CAN (cf. also Collins 1988) or by BE allowed/permitted, HAVE permission, and similar phrases:

(190) No Officer was permitted to carry the newspapers out of the

Messroom. (1811 SportingMag. XXXVII. 152 [OLD])

Another past-time use of might discussed by Visser (1963-73: section 1669) corresponds to PDE might have:

(191) 'But - who saw you do that?'

'No one, I should think, since we were all in the dark.' 'Still, they might hear [= 'might have heardl it.'

(1945 Anthony Gilbert, Black Stage (Olivers, 1988) v.80 [Visser])

He labels this 'eventuality in relation to the past', giving citations right through the ModE period, and quotes the OED on its commonness in the eighteenth century; see also Phillipps (1970: 121-2) on might iot PDE may have. During our period, however, it has become normal to mark the past time element by perfect HAVE.

The relation between may and might appears to be changing too. Coates finds little difference in meaning between epistemic may and might in her PDE corpus: might 'seems no longer to be used as the tentative form of MAY, but simply as an alternative form for the expression of the modality "it is possible that...'" (1983:153). On 'incorrect' may for mights section 3.3.5.3 below.

Other replacements of MAY by CAN, for example in deontic and epistemic use - (192) and (193), respectively - have been spread over an extended period:

(192) a. May I go now? b. C7*«Igonow?

(193) a. and what may it be?

(1880 Jessop, Sam'lof Posen II p. 167 [ARCHER])

B. What else can it be? (ibid. p. 165)

The usage in (192a) and (193a) is increasingly old-fashioned, though by no means obsolete in all dialects.

The demise of the present subjunctive (section 3.3.4.1 above) has led to new means of expressing an exclamatory wish:

(194) a. The devil take him!

B. May the devil take him!

C. I hope the devil takes/may take/will take him.

Thus (194a), which now survives only in formulaic utterances, was replaced mainly by (194b) in the ModE period. As Palmer observes, 'MAY is the most neutral modal' and perhaps 'the closest form in English to the subjunctive of other languages' (1990: 111). However, (194b) is now becoming rather formal, and expedients like (194c) are in turn taking over (Visser 1963-73: section 1680).

It is interesting that the negative mayn't, found from c. 1631 (Denison 1993a: 309), has become very rare in the present century. Palmer denies its very existence in PDE (later on he backtracks a little),55 and he states that mightn't too is absent from many American dialects (1988: 17-18, 242). I suspect this should be related to category membership, given that being a modal is clearly a gradient rather than a clean yes/no matter: either it indicates a weakening of the membership of MAY (or perhaps just of present may), or it corroborates the idea that the category Modal as a whole is becoming less well-defined; see section 3.3.9 below.

Turning now to the modals which have been associated with futural meaning from OE or ME times, SHAL L and w i L L, we find a long tradition of differentiation according to person in certain of their uses; see CHEL II: 263--1, III, forthcoming. During the latter part of our period this somewhat artificial prescription has weakened considerably, and in the first person SHALL has increasingly been replaced by WILL even where there is no element of volition in the meaning. Examples which conform to the grammarians' prescription include:

(195) a. Dearest, I fear this is a case in which I ^//hamper you. But I

Will make up for it by my own work if I can.

(1891 Sidney Webb, Letters 169 1.313 (24 Oct.)) b. It [sc. writing to Maude] wd. [= would] onlylead to trouble, & we shd. [= should] have no right to repeat what was said without any intention at all of conveying censure.

(1872Amberley Papers 11.515 (16 Aug.))

There is no space to report on the history of each combination of person, clause type and meaning. Let us take one example. The OED (s. v. shall B.8c, in an entry first published 1913) reports that in categorical

Questions shallis the normal auxiliary of the future, citing the invented dialogue of (196a):

(196) a. Shallyou miss your train? I am afraid you will.

B. Shall you go to Heaven, Mr. Green?

(1862 Green, Letters 100 (1 Sep.))

C. 'Shall you let him go to Italy, or wherever else he wants to go?'

(1871-2 George Eliot, Middkmarch ix.82)

In my letters corpus this usage actually occurs once only, (196b), though the writer repeats the quoted conversation a few lines later. On the other hand the now-normal use of willoccurs at least twice (many other examples allow the possibility of a volitional interpretation):

(197) a. IF///you esteem me more or less if I tell you that I enjoyed it

(1890Dowson, Z.e#OT82p. 130 (11-12 Jan.))

B. Will you be able to come here next week or will you prefer a

Dinner and Adelaide? (ibid. 100 p. 150 (1 Jun.))

Examples elsewhere of the newer, general use of WILL include:

(198) a. Now we willbe patient.

(1891 Sidney Webb, Letters 172 1.319 (31 Oct.)) b. it shows that you are not well, & if you want to go to Clovelly or some such place for yourself we will do it.

(1872 Amberley Papers 11.521 (22 Aug.))

And as WILL has moved towards being the unmarked exponent of futurity, so its earlier volitional meaning has become weaker, so that examples of would Woe (199) are no longer found in PDE (except perhaps in such contexts as would and could V):

(199) a. but I dare say he might ['would be able to] come if he would

['wished5]. (1816 Austen, Emma I. xviii. 145)

B. and the elder ones retained some of their infantine notion

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